Ignoring the dystopia

This is a repost of an article from 2015.  I selected this one because it mentions Never Let Me Go, a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, who is now a Nobel Laureate.  He is a great writer, and I recommend the book–but not the movie.

Instead of committing any words to my own novel, I spent the last month or so reading Pride and Prejudice.  It was research, I say.  Research!

Pride and Prejudice of course takes place in the dystopia that is Georgian England.  True to the dystopian genre, there are multiple fantastical constructs which are slowly introduced to a horrified audience.  For instance, there’s the idea of an “entail”.  I don’t really get the purpose of it, but apparently it’s a restriction on whether an estate can be passed on in your will.  And then there’s “elopement” which just means that a woman runs away with her lover.  It doesn’t sound like there’s anything wrong with that, but within the dystopia it’s a horrible thing to do, and a complete disgrace to the entire family.

There are also many neat world-building details.  I like how the servants are always there, but no one ever thinks about them much, because that’s just how wealthy people in this universe think.  At the same time, rudeness towards servants signals an unsympathetic character, and kindness towards servants signals a noble character.  That’s the only way the lower classes are ever important: in relation to wealthy people.

I also like how we know exactly how many pounds each character is worth.  In Capital in the 21st Century, the great literary critic Thomas Piketty explains that this is because there are relatively low inflation and constant returns on capital.  Thus, an author can list exact money amounts and expect readers decades in the future to have the same understanding of how much it is.*  Jane Austen really put a lot of thought into that one.

*Upon research, I discovered that Piketty’s claims are disputed by quantitative literary theorists.

Changing the subject, the other day, my boyfriend and I saw Never Let Me Go, a film based on the book of the same name.  I had read the book and thought the movie was a terrible adaptation.  My boyfriend, however, detested the movie, because of the way it ignored its own dystopia.  Without any spoilers, the movie involves some extremely questionable bioethics, and nobody ever questions it, much less gets angry at the system.  Bioethics simply isn’t a theme in the movie.  Instead, bioethics is just a plot device, a metaphor for the brevity of life.

My boyfriend thought the story wasn’t very American.  Which figures, since the writer and screenwriter are British.

But actually I think there’s something interesting about that idea.  A dystopia where nobody fights the evil of the system, or even notices that it’s evil.  Evil is simply there, and the story addresses completely different themes of love and life.

Although come to think of it, maybe that’s too trite.  Maybe that describes every story ever.

Pride and Prejudice ignores the evil of its own dystopia, and instead criticizes smaller evils.  Like how some people are so proud, other people are so prejudiced, and some people are so depraved as to join the priesthood, or to elope.  But sometimes those people learn that they were in the wrong, and eventually come to admit it.

I love that there’s a classic romance where the central plot is about two people changing their minds about each other.  Changing minds!  What a rational value!  This also implies that the woman in the romance has a mind to be changed.  A romance where the woman has agency?  It feels like the most progressive romance I’ve known in ages!

Probably the worst part of the book is that the main reason the woman changes her mind is in response to the man’s display of financial generosity.  He’s so wealthy, and sometimes he sometimes assists other wealthy people who are on the verge of losing their wealthy status!  The main problem with this part is that it reminds us, the readers, of the dystopia which we were so carefully pretending to ignore.

Generally, I’m not a fan of so-called “classic literature”, particularly when people praise it as “timeless”.  There is no way that I am reading classic works of literature the same way that contemporaries did.  I don’t think I should read it that way.  But Jane Austen was a pretty decent writer, and this novel was worth reading.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    My favourite thing about Austin’s books, is how articulate everyone is.
    She could have CharacterA speak for a page-and-a-half describing precisely what is wrong with CharacterB, without repeating an adjective.
    Current writing would use
    “st*pid bi**h” and “f***ing st*pid bi**h”
    in an infinite loop.

  2. Cicada Cycle says

    I did love this paragraph from your 2014 blogpost which commented on your appreciation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled:

    He zooms in really close on ordinary social interactions, and reveals the unnameable emotions within.  For example, in one chapter of The Unconsoled, a man explains at great length why he doesn’t speak to his (adult) daughter.  When she was a child, she did something to anger him, and it was only meant to be a few days. But there never seemed an appropriate moment to break the silence.  An appropriate moment finally arose when she was grieving her hamster, which she accidentally killed, but he hesitated, and now it seems like speaking to her would disrespect the memory of her hamster.

    I have yet to read this book, but reading the above, I‘m not put off to hear the book isn’t broadly liked. At any rate, I’m finding that the more books I read by Ishiguro, the more interesting and peculiar connections I find between his books, no matter how different they seem to be on the surface.

  3. says

    The Unconsoled was a great book. I want to go back and read it again.

    The thing is, it’s a very lengthy exercise in anxiety. The protagonist has a bunch of important things that he needs to get around to doing, but instead gets dragged along by one character after another for almost the whole book. Other characters ramble at length about how they did something that didn’t make any sense, and they argue why it made sense. The protagonist’s life begins to mirror their stories.

    It’s also really surreal. For example, the protagonist alternates between acting like he’s visiting a new town, and like he’s visiting his home town. There’s a character who he acts like he’s never met before, and then she is his wife. Many of the events seem temporally or spatially impossible.

    I once saw Ishiguro speak. Someone asked him why he thought The Unconsoled wasn’t as well-loved as his other books. He said that characters repeatedly find themselves in new situations and generate post-hoc rationalizations for why they’re there. Some readers find it offputting. But other readers say it’s his best novel.

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